Saturday 23 June 2018

Finishing The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country is blessed with 'a most intricate and satisfying plot', according to the blurb on my Brookner-curated Penguin edition. The novel is certainly intricate. Things just keep on happening. In the constant edgy changefulness of her narrative Wharton is closer to a modern like Thomas Hardy than a modernist like Henry James. James's plots are more ordered and formal - never loose, never baggy. As for Brookner, hers are sometimes of the one sort, sometimes of the other. Her most Jamesian plots are to be found in the tight focus of novels like A Private View, whereas the likes of, say, Lewis Percy proceed with a Hardy-style 'one damn thing after another' unpredictability.

When she wrote an Introduction to the contemporaneous The Reef, Brookner called The Custom of the Country 'the broadest and most jovial of Edith Wharton's novels', in contrast with which The Reef was praised for its Jamesian 'dramatic unity'. The two impulses - the expansive and the controlled - perhaps exist side-by-side in Wharton - as they do in Brookner's fiction too.

And what a broad and expansive novel Custom is. What starts out as a classic tale of courtship, quickly becomes one of marriage and then of divorce and later of further divorce. And divorce of a particularly modern kind, divorce that finds its way into the vulgar press. All seems rather endless until a late twist brings the whole farrago into definition: the novel is about Undine, and the modernity she represents. Above the various shenanigans she glides, oblivious, cool - indeed, as we learn in a revealing moment, sexually rather cold. The Custom of the Country is ultimately neither tragedy nor comedy but an heroic effort to understand a not very interesting or talented but very modern girl from Apex. It is, for Edith Wharton, an admirable experiment, an awe-struck descent from Olympus.

Another Brookner-introduced Wharton

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